Need some space? Follow in the footsteps of the pioneers and discover the vast skies and boundless expanse of the Canadian prairie in Saskatchewan, says Laura Gelder
I fly into Saskatoon from Calgary, across a vast, rumpled patchwork quilt of beige and teal, dotted with the odd toy farmhouse, marooned in a vast grass ocean.
I’ve never been to Canada and Saskatchewan is far from the obvious place to start. Even most Canadians know it for just two things: farming and being flat.
Just as I think the flat will never end, or we’ll fall off the end of it, the city rises suddenly from the prairie, grid-patterned evidence of humanity with a tiny cluster of shiny high-rises straddling the South Saskatchewan River.
Checking into the Sheraton, it’s hard to believe this was once a wild west town, but to understand the history of Saskatchewan you need to go further back. Up-river is the First Nations site of Wanuskewin, a heritage park in a grassy valley that’s been populated since mammoth stomped the earth 6,000 years ago.
Proving that not everywhere here is flat, it’s famous for its bison jumps, where tribes of Northern Plains Indians drove herds of the beasts over a cliff to their death. A brutal way to die, but nothing went to waste, I’m told as I watch an energetic dance from a group of colourfully-dressed First Nations. The skin and fur was used for tipis; the ribs made into sleighs; the sinew became taut bow strings and the tail was used to swat flies.
But when white men arrived, living on the plains changed forever. In the 1890s the government painted a glowing picture of the rich lands of Saskatchewan, naming it the ‘Last Best West’ and fuelling an immigration drive which grew the population from 91,000 to 492,000 in 10 years.
Saskatoon’s Western Development Museum recreates the boom time of 1910, when people from across Europe arrived daily to receive the co-ordinates of a square of land which was to become their homestead. Though you can still sense the enourmous opportunity, you can also appreciate the bravery of these pioneers, starting from scratch thousands of miles from home in the lonely prairielands
I find out that the boom was followed by a bust and here in Saskatchewan the 1930s depressioncatastrophically coincided with a 10-year drought which reduced the bountiful land to a virtual desert. Weeds and giant thistles whistled across the plains, replacing crops which were unable to seed in the barren earth. Harsh winds drove drifts of dust into houses, covering people’s belongings in a filthy film – hence the term ‘dirty 30s’. The bread basket became the dust bowl.
Two thirds of the population were declared destitute but those who stayed have descendants still working the land today, and the museum concludes with a snapshot of this world. Nature is helped by 500-horsepower combine harvesters, 90-feet wide GPS precision seed drills and environmentally-controlled barns.
Hitting the road, I get an insight into this Saskatchewan from my host and a book I discover in a petrol station called You Know You’re From Saskatchewan When…For instance, ‘You know you’re from Saskatchewan when your bumper sticker reads ‘My other vehicle is a John Deere’. This, I learn from my guide Janelle, is a brand of tractor which she can recognise a mile off across the endless haze of wheat.
The land is undeniably flat in Saskatchewan, but it’s not boring. The prairie is slightly undulating and we pass royal-blue lakes where flocks of white birds perch to feed, vast shimmering salt lakes and countless farms with red Dutch barns, metal grain silos glinting in the sun and combine harvesters throwing up clouds of chaff like smoke signals. No matter where you turn, the sky is the star – vast and never-ending whether its topped with golden wheat or waving grass.
After passing through the small town of Kyle, past a clapped out rusty Cadillac sporting a bullhorn on the bonnet, we get to the entrance for working cattle ranch La Reata and as we drive, gradually rolling hills replace yellow flats. It’s not dramatic scenery, more on a par with Tellytubby Land, but its beautiful in its own gentle way.
Nestled in a valley, a series of rustic guest rooms are housed in round-roofed red shacks that look out over the hills and Lake Diefenbaker.
Owner George Gaber is a German Marlborough Man, permanently dressed in denim and leather and with a chiseled Disney hero jaw shaded under his cowboy hat.
There is no wifi, TV or other modern trappings at his ranch. Meals – hearty home-cooked fare like chili – are eaten at long communal tables and the entertainment is riding, swimming, playing with the dogs and a tin shack saloon with tractor seat bar stools. I could stay forever.
After getting us kitted out in leather chaps and wide-brimmed hats, George leads a group of us out on horseback. We ride Western-style, of course, fancying ourselves true cowgirls and boys as we stand on a promontory surveying George’s rolling and tranquil land.
After the hills come the trees, which have been conspicuous by their absense. I arrive at Treeosix Adventure Park, which offers a thrilling canopy tour in Cypress Hills Provincial Park, and get kitted out for some zip-lining. Through the poker-straight lodgepole pines is an aeriel path via a series of wooden platforms 40 feet above the forest floor. The smell of fresh pine is intoxicating as I soar from tree to tree and the last line is done flying fox-style – head-first and belly down.
Afterwards I learn another local phrase in the gift shop which sells t-shirts, caps and… bunny hugs? Apparently, ‘You know you’re from Saskatchewan when you call it a bunny hug instead of a hoodie’.
It’s time to head back to urban Saskatchewan and the next stop is the tiny city of Moosejaw which I discover has a Chicago connection. In the days of Prohibition it allegedly hosted Al Capone. Implausible as this sounds, underneath the city is a labyrinth of tunnels which were genuinely used to smuggle alcohol and hide those flouting America’s puritanical laws. I take the entertaining Tunnels of Moosejaw tour, following period-dressed actors with excellent gangster accents through a series of re-created boozy stockrooms before I’m chased into the gift shop with gun shots on my tail!
I end my trip in the leafy capital of Regina and its Depot, where every Canadian Mountie does their training. If you watched the 90s TV show Due South this is very exciting, if you didn’t it’s still fascinating.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have trained here since 1885 and while horses are mostly used for ceremonial purposes now, the red uniform and brimmed hats are unchanged. I take a tour of the shooting gallery and driving range before watching the crimson recruits march proudly at the daily Sunset Retreat ceremony.
As the sun sets on my trip, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this sprawling province, which yields boreal forest, sand dunes and lakes further north and badlands to the south. It might not have the grandeur of the Rockies but if you want to experience rural Canada and you value space and nature, it’s perfect. You know you’re from Saskatchewan when social distancing comes as standard.